Captain was first to flee, say survivors

Saturday 04 February 2006, 16:17 Makka Time, 13:17 GMT

Survivors of the Red Sea ferry disaster have said the captain and his crew were first to flee the burning ship by lifeboat and abandoned them to their fate.

Some passengers plucked alive from the sea or from boats after the ferry caught fire and sank early on Friday said on Saturday that the crew had told them not to worry about a fire below deck and even ordered them to take off lifejackets.

The survivors said a fire broke out below deck shortly after the 35-year-old vessel left the Saudi port of Duba on Thursday evening.

Shihata Ali, an Egyptian survivor, said the passengers had told the captain about the fire but he told them not to worry.

"We were wearing lifejackets but they told us there was nothing wrong, told us to take them off and they took away the lifejackets," he said. "Then the boat started to sink and the captain took a boat and left."

Another survivor said: "The captain was the first to leave and we were surprised to see the boat sinking."

Other survivors also reported that the crew played down the gravity of the situation and withheld lifejackets.

Abd al-Rauf Abd al-Nabi said: "There was a fire but the crew stopped the people from putting on lifejackets so that it wouldn't cause a panic."

Nadir Jalal Abd al-Shafi, another arrival on the same rescue boat, said: "There was a blaze down below. The crew said 'Don't worry, we will put it out'. When things got really bad the crew just went off in the lifeboats and left us on board."

Preliminary analysis
Officials at al-Salam Maritime Transport Company, which owned the Al Salam 98, were not immediately available to answer the allegations.

Shirin Hasan, the head of the maritime section of the Egyptian Ministry of Transport, told state television that the fire seemed to have broken out in a vehicle on the lower car deck.

The crew thought that they had put the fire out but it flared up again, he said, citing a preliminary analysis.

Rifat Said, 34, a passenger from Giza, near Cairo, said: "We asked why there was smoke and they told us they were putting out the fire but it got worse. The ferry sailed on for two hours listing to the side. Then it just went onto its side and within five minutes it had sunk."

It was not immediately clear what happened to the captain, named al-Said Umar, or why coastguards did not appear to have received any distress signal from the ferry.

State news agency MENA said that on Friday morning a ship did pick up a message from the ferry's captain saying he was in danger of sinking. It did not say how the ship reacted.